Storing stem cells at AIIMS

Published: December 17, 2006  |  Source: timesofindia.indiatimes.com
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NEW DELHI: All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) now has another first to its name — it has set up the country’s first cord blood bank in the government sector.

Umbilical cord blood from the five to eight deliveries that happen daily in the institute is being collected, provided parents are willing, and stored at ultra-low temperature for use in treating patients of cancer and other debilitating diseases. As of now, this is only for “in-house” patients, but AIIMS has ambitious plans for setting up a national cord blood bank.

The institute has been doing stem cell therapy for various terminal illnesses for some time now, but this is the first time stem cells, other than those from the patient, are being used for treatment.

Umbilical cord blood is the richest source of stem cells — primitive cells that have the potential to differentiate into any kind of tissue. So far, two patients have benefited from the bank.

In one case, the institute stored the cord blood of the sibling of a thalassaemic child, which was later transfused into the patient. The other patient was suffering from a spinal cord injury and stem cells of an unknown donor were used. The prognosis in both cases has been good.

Explaining the need for a cord blood bank, assistant professor and the in-charge of stem cell facility, Dr Sujata Mohanty, says: “We were so long doing the therapy using only autologous cells from the patient’s bone marrow. But that process is more cumbersome, and in elderly patients, autologous stem cells are often found to be less effective.

This bank would mean that much like we transfuse blood, stem cells will be transfused, the only difference being that blood group per se is of little importance here because we are not transfusing RBCs.”

Before stem cells are given to a patient, a HLA (or Human Leucocyte Antigen) typing is done to check for the compatibility of donor and recepient. This is the most important pre-transfusion test for stem cells, which are mostly white blood cells, says Mohanty. HLA is a protein present on the cell’s surface, which is a unique marker in each person, as all cells of an individual have the same HLA.

The institute also has the facility for long-term storage of cord blood of the type preferred by parents as a “health insurance” for their newborn babies. But services of this nature are not yet being offered because of infrastructure constraints. AIIMS had, earlier this year, submitted a Rs 81.48-lakh proposal to the department of Biotechnology for a national cord blood bank.

They were asked to route it through the health ministry. “Before we did that, we decided to do some capacity-building ourselves so that we are at least able to meet the needs of our own patients before trying to cater to the rest of the country. We have most of the equipment ready but running costs and manpower recruitment is where we would need financial sanction from the ministry,” Dr Mohanty says.

Abantika Ghosh